For the first time in years, things are starting to look up for the Atlanta Hawks.
Trae Young and John Collins led a young core that improved every night down the stretch, with Young finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting. Now the Hawks will be adding a pair of top ten picks in De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, as well as 2019 first team all-Big 10 power forward Bruno Fernando.
“I think these young guys are jelling very well,” Fox Sports Southeast color announcer and NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins said. “I think out of the young guys, the guy who has stood out the most is Hunter. He was a three-year college player, he’s a seasoned individual, and a solid defender. He will be at the forefront of this young class.”
Wilkins will be joined by play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun this season, with the first telecast coming on Thursday Oct. 24 against the Detroit Pistons. The home opener will be two days later against the Orlando Magic. Rathbun has spent 23 years calling the Hawks, and he sees a lot to be excited about with the 2019-20 team.
“You just don’t know what the next day is going to bring,” Rathbun said. “To me, it’s appointment viewing for Hawks fans to watch these young guys. When you look at a guy like Trae Young, every night you have a chance to see an unbelievable play from him. For Hawks fans and basketball fans in general, watching these young guys is great.”
Young played in 81 games last season as a rookie out of Oklahoma, averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 assists per game. The latter number was good enough for fourth in the NBA and second in the Eastern Conference, only behind Toronto’s Kyle Lowry with 8.7 assists per game. He had nine games with at least 30 points and broke 10 assists on 32 occasions, highlighted by a 49-point, 16-assist effort against the Chicago Bulls in March.
Young and the Hawks will need to be sharp right out of the gate, as Atlanta faces a brutal early schedule. The Hawks will play 15 of their first 22 games against teams who qualified for the playoffs last season.
“Sometimes it ends up that way and there’s not much you can do with that,” Wilkins said. “As a player, you look at it one day at a time. You try to win as many games as you can. The schedule is never really favorable for a young team. A lot of these kids are still developing. It’s going to be tough either way.”
When it comes to the development of young players, defense will be at the forefront. The Hawks were dead last in the league in points allowed per game last season, giving up a mammoth 119.4 points per night. They were in the top half in scoring offense, but an inability to get stops just knocked them out of too many games.
“Defensively, they (the rookies) will have to get used to how fast the game is,” Wilkins said. “I look at a guy like Hunter, he has figured out he can guard in this league. When you get everyone having that frame of mind, I think you’re going to see some very special things out of these young players.”
But the Hawks won’t just need young players to improve if they are going to improve on last season’s 29-53 record. The team lost veteran contributors Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon during the offseason, and will need some help from outside the organization. And one guy who arrived as a free agent in July has stood out throughout the preseason schedule.
“I think the x-factor for this team is going to be Jabari Parker,” Rathbun said. “I think his ability to score and rebound off the bench and giving the second unit a lift is going to be huge. He’s the kind of guy that can get you 15 points and 7 rebounds every night.”
Parker will be playing on his fourth team in the East after stints in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington. The 24-year-old will be one of the more experienced members of the roster with five seasons of NBA experience under his belt. He will be trying to do something he has done once in his career. Qualify for the postseason.
It’s going to be a steep climb for this very young Atlanta team relying heavily on rookies. But success can be defined by more than just finishing in the top eight in the East, and that might be where these Hawks have to look for progress.
“I think the goal for this team is to play meaningful games in March and April,” Rathbun said. “I think if we can just make those incremental improvements, this season will be a huge success.”